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Food and drink

Yemeni restaurants are lively places, with groups of men – women are seldom seen in restaurants – eating food from pots and plates placed between them. Yemenis do not use cutlery; eating with the right hand is the norm. Food is often served very hot on metal plates or in earthenware pots. Waiters generally shout their orders somewhere in the direction of the kitchen. Eating takes no longer than ten minutes, after which everyone goes his way, usually to a qat session.

In the morning Yemenis eat a small plate of cooked beans (ful). At midday they eat a solid meal, as an important preparation for the qat session. Chicken, beef, and fish are part of the diet of rich people, while poor people eat beans, more beans, kidneys, eggs, and bread. Vegetables are on most menus. In the evening Yemenis enjoy a small meal, the qat having suppressed their hunger. Food stalls are found everywhere in the cities, offering a wide variety of seasonal food. Food in the rural areas is often limited to home-grown vegetables and cereals.

Salta is the most popular and probably the most authentically Yemeni dish. It originated in the north but is also rapidly becoming part of the menu in the south. Salta is a stew, the ingredients of which vary regionally, including meat, onions, tomatoes, and potatoes; it is often made of leftovers. A bitter, frothy green sauce, helba, is poured over the stew. Helba is made from fenugreek seeds (hulba is fenugreek in Arabic), first beaten to powder and then steeped in water. The dish is served in a bowl hewn out of Saada stone. These bowls are heat-proof – all dishes are served literally boiling hot – and durable, by Yemeni standards. Salta is considered the best preparation for a qat session.

Yemeni bread comes in various forms, always freshly baked and mostly as small pita-like breads or very light, small loafs. Noteworthy is mallouj, which originated in Saada, in the north, and consists of an immense, folded bread deliciously flavoured with aniseed. Sweet dough is not as common in Yemen as elsewhere in the Arab world. An exception is bint al-sahn, a delicious cake made of thin layers of dough drenched in superior Yemeni honey and covered with clarified butter.

Drinks are mostly limited to tea. Shahai ahmar (shay ahmar, red tea) is a strong, sweet black tea, flavoured with cloves or mint. Shahai halib (shay halib, milk tea) is tea with sweetened condensed milk. Fruit juices are widely available in the cities. Coffee is drunk only occasionally and is often flavoured with cardamom. Yemenis more often drink qishr, a light drink made from coffee husks and cardamom.


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